Education Trailblazer BJ Arnett Reveals Keys to Student Success
Updated: Mar 8
BJ Arnett addresses the "New Normal" in this in depth interview about education in today's changing climate.
Times of Swift Transition
While the academic world has transitioned to virtual learning, many educators are grappling with how to reach students in this "new normal". For those accustomed to conventional teaching methods, the recent shifts can be daunting. In the midst of these changes, educator, actor, film producer, costumer and Associate Professor Mrs. BJ Arnett of Clark Atlanta University is in her element. For the past decade, Professor Arnett has been implementing ways to spark the social media generation.
Her relentless commitment to student growth and academic excellence has enriched her career and academic trek. This spring, Professor Arnett became the third professor in the history of fashion merchandising to be awarded tenure. She was also promoted to associate professor.
In a recent interview, she took the time in between classes to talk about the keys to success in student morale and retention during this time of virtual learning.
When asked what it takes to reach today's student she responded,
"We can no longer teach in a vacuum of what was done twenty years ago. We must have students Read it, Regurgitate it, Test it and Do it. The secret sauce to reaching today’s student is showing the connection between textbook and practical application for industry procedures."
A recent study conducted by the MGH Institute of Health Professions, examines the benefits and challenges of online teaching. According to the study, remote instruction requires
"Knowledge and comfort in the use of technology, re-envisioning course goals, activities, and assessments, building a community of learners and facilitating discussions."
According to Professor Arnett,
"Our new normal as educators is to be leaders of these innovative minds. We must press to open broad discussions to allow innovative learning."
The coupling of technological advancements through practical industry experience has allowed for a rather smooth transition to an online community. She recognizes that the millennial learner is quite different from the students she instructed in the 1980’s. In regards to her unconventional methods, Professor Christopher Hickey, the department chair of Clark Atlanta University’s Art and Fashion Department states,
“Professor Arnett’s fusion of professional experience and academic preparation is a perfect pairing for fashion merchandising. My own background is entirely academic so hopefully I have been able to guide her through some of the bureaucracy inherent in the academy.”
While professors such as Hickey and Arnett have adjusted to the shifting demands of a global pandemic, what effects have these swift transitions had on students? Jennifer Katzenstein, director of psychology and neuropsychology at the Hopkins All Children’s Hospital describes student challenges here,
“College students in particular are struggling to create an environment free of distractions and develop the necessary organizational skills to stay on top of their assignments, noting that these difficulties can affect students’ mental health.”
Professor Arnett believes that the establishment of meaningful interaction and practical instruction prior to these changes has minimized the distractions and disorder that so many young scholars are facing. She maintains,
“Our students were passionate about their majors before the world went online. In many ways this has fueled their resilience during these times. They now see the need to activate those lessons that had already begun in and outside of the classroom.”
At a time when so many are pressing against the internal interruptions within their homes and the external calamities of a society beyond their walls, what is the relevance of teachers such as Professor Arnett to the academic community? To this Professor Hickey responded,
“Certainly when the very fabric of our society is being stressed by the pandemic and cases of police brutality against Black Americans, having a person on our faculty who the students trust and can confide in, is critical in allaying fear and anxiety. Students attend HBCUs with an expectation that their faculty will mentor and guide them. Professor Arnett is exemplary in modeling mentoring for all of us.”
A Wealth of Experience
Beyond her listening ear and passion for mentoring, Mrs. Arnett brings decades of expertise, much of which expands beyond the fashion industry.
At the age of twenty, the then BJ Rucker became the first and youngest African American chair of the Finishing and Modeling Department at Bauder College.
She went on to start one of the first African American female-led fashion, special event and promotions companies. Her first local client was Rouse Company Malls in the 1980’s. Her company Style Tech produced fashion shows for Class A malls throughout Atlanta and the southeast and mid-west regions
In the ‘90’s she continued to advance, this time making moves in arts and entertainment. She became an entertainment and lifestyle reporter with 11 Alive where she interviewed personalities such as Lena Horne, The Judds, Danny Glover, Marie Osmond, Cicely Tyson, Patti Labelle, First Lady Rosalyn Carter, and Ambassador Andrew Young to name a few. Simultaneously she served as one of the head costumers for the hit talk show ‘Roseanne’ alongside the best in the industry.
Yet with all that she has accomplished, her drive has always been the empowerment of the next generation. Her company StyleTech developed Model Majesty, a modeling and etiquette program for children to young adults. For over twenty years it was in JC Penney stores throughout the metro Atlanta area.
This passion led her to Clark Atlanta University in 2015. Upon arrival, she came with a vision to establish a continual partnership between fashion, film and entertainment professionals and fashion merchandising.
Garnering Their Attention
Arnett’s teaching philosophy is that textbook based learning is not enough and that students must be made industry ready through practical application.
This has meant plugging students into the planning and operation of fashion, film and entertainment events on the local and national scale. Whether on the film sets of Camy Arnett Production Studios (a production company owned by her and her husband), red carpet premieres, or on fashion tours to New York City, Clark Atlanta University students have been mirroring, assisting and interning with film, fashion and entertainment professionals. To this end Professor Hickey maintains,
"Professor Arnett models professionalism. A key teaching strategy for her is to get the students off campus and into actual businesses where the students get to interact with the very people they are aspiring to be. "
The result? Many of the distractions accompanying online learning were eliminated before Arnett’s students ever left the building. They had been groomed to take onus of their education rather than relying on the safety net of a traditional academic structure. Having worked alongside leaders in the industry, they realized what was possible for themselves. It stuck. In the face of global change, now more than ever her students recognize the importance of impacting their fields. The CAU motto states, “Find a Way or Make A Way”. This has become the dogmatic reality for many of today’s online learners. Professor Arnett’s pupils are no exception.
When asked what has been Professor Arnett’s primary contribution to Clark Atlanta's Department of Art and Fashion, Professor Hickey stated,
“It is hard to pin point one thing. An overarching theme is her love for our students and her willingness to share her professional experiences with them. A concrete example of her commitment to students is our annual Fashion Week that she started.”
Under her direction, Clark Atlanta fashion students developed the first fashion week at a HBCU in 2016.
Also to her credit, and through the strong contributions of CAU alumni, New York Trends and Tours, a New York City fashion tour, has become an integral part of the Professor Arnett experience as well. Here's a glimpse of what the tour was like:
"We were able to gain relationships with FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) professors. This has led to an exchange of teaching methods and opened up speaking opportunities. We met Bloomingdale's VP of talent acquisitions. We worked with the VP of Marketing for Chinatown's Nike design shop where students designed their own tennis shoe. We spent two hours with the costume producer of the Lion King. We spent an afternoon with famed designer B Michael of B Michael America and his business partner Mark-Anthony Edwards. Lastly, we were able to walk through the production process with two costumers, and then go on to a tour of a manufacturing house where we witnessed the manufacturing process from start to finish. I believe it is important that students move beyond the textbooks to write the textbooks based on such real industry experience.”
A third contribution to the CAU community was Professor Arnett’s establishment of the Fab Lab, a retail training space designed and operated by students. There students gained practical experience in visual merchandising, wardrobe styling, buying and selling. With this background, students were prepped to effectively interface with the Atlanta Apparel Mart, The Shops Around Lenox, The Shops Buckhead Atlanta, Sassy South Jewelry, and Catwalk Productions to name a few.
The Open Doors
Professor Arnett’s promotion is a win for the student body and the university as well. In a closing remark regarding her successes, she maintains that the focus must be on the our responsibility of it all:
“This line of work is about innovation and revelation. If we don’t allow our students the opportunity to try and fail or try and succeed, we’re only allowing them to scratch the surface of being truly educated in their fields. Failure leads to revelation. Revelation leads to innovation."
We look forward to more open doors for Professor Arnett, the faculty, the staff and the students of Clark Atlanta University and the academic community at large.
The Clark Atlanta University School of Arts and Sciences offers a diverse curriculum that allows students to flourish, find their path, and achieve their lifted life of career success. Today it is the largest among the university’s four schools and is home to 18 academic departments across four divisions: Communications, Humanities, Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Social Sciences. Visit https://www.cau.edu/.
Balram, Amrita. “How Online Learning Can Affect Student Health.” Letter, 20 Apr. 2020,www.jhunewsletter.com/article/2020/04/how-online-learning-can-affect-student-health.
“Benefits and Challenges of Online Instruction.” MGH Institute of Health Professions, 28 Feb. 2020, www.mghihp.edu/faculty-staff-faculty-compass-teaching/benefits-and-challenges-online-instruction.